As South Africans await distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, fake news and misinformation have led to fears over its safety and effectiveness. We look at six of the most common myths and set the record straight.
1. Myth: The vaccine trials and development were rushed, therefore it’s unsafe.
Fact: The COVID-19 vaccine trials and development were done speedily, due to the urgency, but were subjected to rigorous safety and effectiveness regulatory standards in the countries making and/or distributing the vaccines.
Importantly, the vaccines that have been approved have been tested in human trials. South Africa is expected to receive 1 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine this month (Jan), followed by 500 000 in Feb. This vaccine was tested on 20 000 people around the world.
2. Myth: The vaccine can actually make you sick with COVID-19.
Fact: The vaccine does not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19, so the vaccine simply cannot infect you with COVID-19. You would not test positive for COVID-19 if you had the vaccine.
There may be side effects to the vaccine. It’s normal after the vaccination to see skin redness, swelling or pain around the injection site. You might also have fever, headache, fatigue and/or aching limbs in the first three days after vaccination.
3. Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine combines with your DNA and can change your genetic code.
Fact: This myth appears to stem from the fact that two of the vaccines, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, use a natural chemical called messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that carry genetic information. mRNA gives instructions to the cells to make a harmless spike protein that mimics the COVID-19 virus, which in turn triggers your immune system, so your body is ready to fight the virus if you are exposed.
mRNA enters the cell but never the nucleus of the cell, which is where your DNA (genetic material) is kept, so it doesn’t change your DNA. mRNA is fragile and is degraded soon after it is finished doing its job, which is within about 72 hours at most.
4. Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine can cause autism.
Fact: There is no connection between the vaccine and autism. This fear seems to stem from a study published in 1998 suggesting that the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine might cause autism. Since then, scientific studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines, or any of their ingredients, and autism.
5. Myth: The vaccine contains a tracking microchip, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is behind it.
Fact: Vaccines do not contain tracking devices or microchips. Rumours on social media should be ignored as fake news.
6. Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t protect you against the new strains of the virus.
Fact: Viruses do mutate, and existing vaccines may be less effective against the new variants. However, AstraZeneca CEO said recently that the company’s vaccine should “remain effective” against new variants of the virus. Meanwhile, recent scientific evidence has shown that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is effective against the two variants of the virus (known as N501Y), identified in South Africa and in the UK. More data is needed on the effectiveness of the current vaccines against possible future variants of the virus, in particular the recently identified "escape mutant" known as E484K.
A key advantage of the mRNA technology used in Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines is that it allows the vaccines to be adapted to potentially provide immunity to future mutations in the virus.
All the approved COVID-19 vaccines have been tested extensively for safety and have been proved to be over 90% effective which is an excellent result for vaccine efficacy. Together with mask-wearing, hand-sanitising and social distancing, they are a key weapon in the fight against COVID-19.